Why I was impressed by Close Examination at The National Gallery

Between June and September this year, the National Gallery put on a small exhibition – Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries. This was a fantastic look at how science and expert knowledge on the culture and content of art have been used to better understand paintings and to uncover fraudulent works.

The exhibition wasn’t easy to find. Whilst it was widely advertised, particularly on the London Underground system, once visitors actually arrived at the Gallery the signage was inadequate. This might have been something to do with the exhibition’s rather out-of-the-way location. It was housed in a series of small, dingy rooms, but really made a fantastic use of this space.

The premise of the exhibition was made very clear, and a leaflet of technical terms ensured that its content was accessible to all. This left the curators free to fully explain the fascinating processes at work, without oversimplifying the issues or alienating the visitor. I particularly enjoyed the expert analysis of varnish and pigments.

The ordering of content was wonderful. Light was used brilliantly to highlight the room labels, so that content could be navigated easily. Visitors were free to explore the rooms that interested them, and to select which case studies in each room to examine. It is testament to the quality of this exhibition that I felt compelled to read everything and to examine every painting. Each of the rooms had a clear theme, giving a masterful sense of coherence. And the importance of each room’s theme was excellently presented, making me anxious to learn more about them.

This exhibition was wonderful at imparting an investigative urge in the visitor. On many occasions we were challenged to interrogate X-ray pictures or invited to compare sections of two paintings. This was an exhibition that guided and developed the visitor’s critical faculties, to such an extent that, with a little hand-holding, we became able to re-trace the creative analytical steps of others. This was curating at its finest, truly fulfilling the mission of a public cultural institution. The explanatory text to each case study posed a series of intriguing questions and then set out to answer them. This was a great way of engaging the viewer. Sections on ‘seductive beauty’, ‘Holbein’s mistake’, and the Botticelli case study were among my favourites.

Thinking more broadly about the exhibition, the concept is brilliant. By displaying forgeries to the public, and explaining the stories behind them, the Gallery turns a series of potentially embarrassing and controversial wastes of money into a prism through which we can learn about the world of art. I learnt a lot about how galleries work, how paintings are purchased, how science and cultural understandings combine to shape our knowledge of paintings, and how people try to defraud others in this field.

This exhibition was incredibly rich. Whilst firmly rooted in individual works, it was most admirable for the way that it helped us to engage with them and the world surrounding them. I left having grown in my own understanding, and having engaged more profoundly with the works on display. It seems a shame that it has come to an end, particularly given its unique focus. Thankfully, however, its online presence is excellent, allowing you to experience all the content, from the Introduction to the exhibition, through the rooms on Deception and Deceit, Transformations and Modifications, Mistakes, Secrets and Conundrums, Being Botticelli, and, finally, to the room focused on Redemption and Recovery. Highly recommended.

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